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Alan Jacobs

The Uses of Ignorance

C. S. Lewis in America

What follows is a talk given at Wheaton College on November 1, 2013 at a conference sponsored by the Marion Wade Center on the American influence on C. S. Lewis. It is a response to papers by George Mardsen and Mark Noll. I have answered their scholarly labors with more personal reflections.

Now that George and Mark have given us some important elements of the reception-history of C. S. Lewis, I want to step back from the research they have provided and try to give an account, from a distance, of what it seems to me their research adds up to—and to offer some speculations of my own.

One lesson to be learned from the papers we have heard today is just how carefully Lewis articulated his "mere Christianity" so that it seemed "mere" indeed—recognizable to Christians from many different traditions as the faith they understood and practiced. But we also see, as George rightly notes, "that the lasting appeal of Mere Christianity is not based so much on Lewis's genius as on his ability to point readers to the luminosity of the gospel message itself." Which, I might add, is a kind of genius in itself.

I think Lewis himself is the best articulator of this point, in the wonderful introduction he wrote for the translation of Athanasius's On the Incarnation made by his friend Sister Penelope Lawson. These are words that we may do well to keep in mind throughout our discussion:

The divisions of Christendom are undeniable and are by some of these writers most fiercely expressed. But if any man is tempted to think—as one might be tempted who read only contemporaries—that "Christianity" is a word of so many meanings that it means nothing at all, he can learn beyond all doubt, by stepping out of his own century, that this is not so. Measured against the ages "mere Christianity" turns out to be no insipid interdenominational transparency, but something positive, self-consistent, and inexhaustible. I know it, indeed, to my cost. In the days when I still hated Christianity, I learned to recognise, like some all too familiar smell, that almost unvarying something which met me, now in Puritan Bunyan, now in Anglican Hooker, now in Thomist Dante. It was there (honeyed and floral) in Francois de Sales; it was there (grave and homely) in Spenser and Walton; it was there (grim but manful) in Pascal and Johnson; there again, with a mild, frightening, Paradisial flavour, in Vaughan and Boehme and Traherne. In the urbane sobriety of the eighteenth century one was not safe—Law and Butler were two lions in the path. The supposed "Paganism" of the Elizabethans could not keep it out; it lay in wait where a man might have supposed himself safest, in the very centre of The Faerie Queene and the Arcadia. It was, of course, varied; and yet—after all—so unmistakably the same; recognisable, not to be evaded, the odour which is death to us until we allow it to become life: "An air that kills / From yon far country blows."
We are all rightly distressed, and ashamed also, at the divisions of Christendom. But those who have always lived within the Christian fold may be too easily dispirited by them. They are bad, but such people do not know what it looks like from without. Seen from there, what is left intact despite all the divisions, still appears (as it truly is) an immensely formidable unity. I know, for I saw it; and well our enemies know it. That unity any of us can find by going out of his own age. It is not enough, but it is more than you had thought till then. Once you are well soaked in it, if you then venture to speak, you will have an amusing experience. You will be thought a Papist when you are actually reproducing Bunyan, a Pantheist when you are quoting Aquinas, and so forth. For you have now got on to the great level viaduct which crosses the ages and which looks so high from the valleys, so low from the mountains, so narrow compared with the swamps, and so broad compared with the sheep-tracks.

(A digression: It has long seemed to me, and someone may have written about this without my knowing it, that there is a close intellectual kinship between Lewis's discovery of the "positive, self-consistent, and inexhaustible" Christianity that persists through the ages and the dominant note of his scholarship, which is the kinship between medieval and Renaissance literature. The widespread belief that between, say, "Thomist Dante" and "Puritan Bunyan" there is a great gulf fixed was something Lewis sought to refute both as a theological writer and as a literary scholar. Lewis was the first Professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge, and, as he himself noted in his inaugural lecture, not too many decades earlier such a conjunction would have been thought absurd. Perhaps his most lasting achievement as a scholar was to demolish the simplistic idea that the Renaissance constituted a decisive and complete repudiation of the medieval intellectual and literary world. Most lasting, yes, but not permanent: that very idea, in an astonishingly reductive form, underlies Stephen Greenblatt's recent book The Swerve, which portrays a handful of Renaissance humanists recovering the great Lucretius from the silence and darkness to which he had been condemned by the benighted pseudo-scholars of the Middle Ages. To the abject consternation of many medievalists, The Swerve won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. So as valuable and as influential as Lewis's demolition of that simplistic dichotomy was, it has zombie-like powers of recovery, and we need more scholars, Christian or not, to rise up and cut off its head. But the question is: Will scholars, including medievalists, who know little about Christianity be as perceptive as Lewis was about the forces that serve to link historical periods? I have my doubts. Few if any intellectual victories are permanent, a fact lovers of C. S. Lewis's work might do well to recall. End of digression.)

I'll say more about the passage I read later, but for now I'll just note that Lewis's introduction to Sister Penelope's translation of Athanasius is one of my very favorites among Lewis's writings, and one that I turn to often for comfort and reassurance. It is a foundational document, an essential one, for an understanding of CSL.

Throughout the 1950s, the young but already well-known historian Hugh Trevor-Roper wrote long, elegantly crafted letters to the great art historian Bernard Berenson about life in Oxford. (Berenson was at this point elderly and in poor health, and Trevor-Roper strove to entertain him.) In January of 1951 he wrote,

Do you know C. S. Lewis? In case you don't, let me offer a brief character-sketch. Envisage (if you can) a man who combines the face and figure of a hog-reever or earth-stopper with the mind and thought of a Desert Father of the fifth century, preoccupied with meditations of inelegant theological obscenity; a powerful mind warped by erudite philistinism, blackened by systematic bigotry, and directed by a positive detestation of such profane frivolities as art, literature, and, of course, poetry; a purple-faced bachelor and misogynist, living alone in rooms of inconceivable hideousness, secretly consuming vast quantities of his favorite dish, beefsteak-and-kidney pudding; periodically trembling at the mere apprehension of a feminine footfall; and all the while distilling his morbid and illiberal thoughts into volumes of best-selling prurient religiosity and such reactionary nihilism as is indicated by the gleeful title, The Abolition of Man.

Two points before I proceed. First, please do not think that this letter indicates some distinctive animosity toward Lewis. Trevor-Roper habitually took this tone, especially in these letters to Berenson, which were meant to enliven the days of an old and somewhat isolated man; and if you think this is rough stuff, you should see his reviews of Arnold Toynbee, whom he cheerfully referred to as "the Apostle of the Half-Baked," or of Lawrence Stone, on whose work he kept a file in his office labeled "Death of Stone." (The publisher Hamish Hamilton once wrote to Berenson that he had been at a country-house party where their common friend was present: "Hugh Trevor-Roper was there, and we found ourselves wondering if one so young and gifted ought to spend quite so much time hating people.") Second, the portrait of Lewis is obviously and absurdly wrong: to portray CSL of all people as a despiser of poetry, to think that "the abolition of man" is something he advocated—yes, of course, one could not possibly be farther off-base.

But Trevor-Roper, fifteen years younger than Lewis and at that point in his life a fellow of Christ Church (having been an undergraduate at Merton), is essentially serving here as a wholesaler of Oxford gossip: the Lewis he describes is an Oxford "character," like the classicist Maurice Bowra or the famous Reverend Spooner of "spoonerism" fame; the portrait distills Senior Common Room chatter, and nothing is more essential to such chatter than knowing—or "knowing"—just enough about people that they and their ideas can be dismissed.

Let us compare this letter to something that at first might seem to be its opposite: a comment by Tolkien in a still unpublished, and currently inaccessible, essay on his friend (as quoted by Humphrey Carpenter):

It was not for some time that I realized that there was more in the title Pilgrim's Regress than I had understood (or the author either, maybe). Lewis would regress. He would not re-enter Christianity by a new door, but by the old one: at least in the sense that in taking it up again he would also take up, or reawaken, the prejudices so sedulously planted in boyhood. He would become again a Northern Ireland protestant.

Tolkien refers to this as Lewis's "Ulsterior motive," and sees it as key to his friend's religion in general and to the right reading of The Pilgrim's Regress in particular. We should take particular notice of the fact that Tolkien reads the Pilgrim's Regress in precisely the opposite way than CSL's early Catholic readers did: not as evidence for commitment to Catholicism, but as a savage repudiation of Catholicism.

Tolkien no doubt would say that those early readers were simply misled by the manifestly Catholic publisher of the book, along with that publisher's eagerness, as described by Mark, to encourage the assumption that the Pilgrim is a Catholic one. (I especially like a review that Mark didn't happen to quote, from The Living Church, an American Anglican journal: Norman Pittenger, an Episcopal priest with whom Lewis would butt heads later, wrote that the book's pilgrim ends "in a resting-place which we fancy is none other than the Church of Rome. Anglicans may wish that he had come their way, but Mr Lewis, who is a Roman Catholic, does not see it so.") For Tolkien these misunderstandings may readily be attributed to ignorance; he would claim a deeper insight based on years of intimacy with Lewis.

And yet Tolkien's interpretation is based on a faulty assumption: that Lewis had been thoroughly instructed from early childhood in a profoundly anti-Catholic disposition. Such a disposition would in fact have been seriously at odds with the genial and relatively high-church Anglicanism in which he was actually raised, in a house with Catholic servants, by the way—something that wouldn't have been tolerated by dyed-in-the-wool Ulster Prots, which Albert and Flora Lewis certainly were not. Lewis himself did not mean for his Regress to be read in that way, as he made abundantly clear over the years, for instance in a preface he wrote a decade after the book's first publication: "The book is concerned solely with Christianity as against unbelief. 'Denominational' questions do not come in." Presumably Tolkien knew this, but thought himself a better judge of such matters than the author: the derivation of "Ulsterior" from "ulterior," with its connotations of secrecy and hiddenness, indicate Tolkien's belief that Lewis knew not his own mind. (We need not dwell on that fact that Tolkien grew very annoyed indeed when readers interpreted his works with equal freedom.)

At this point we might recall a line I read earlier: "You will be thought a Papist when you are actually reproducing Bunyan"—a comment particular relevant to these interpretations of The Pilgrim's Regress, and especially to the book's invocation of "Mother Kirk." Catholic readers, accustomed to thinking and speaking of Holy Mother Church, focused on the "Mother," but had they thought more about the "Kirk" they might have recalled the Church of Scotland, the Scots Kirk, that Presbyterian body created in the image of the formidable Calvinist John Knox. One could say that the spirit of "mere Christianity" is at work in Lewis's decision to join "Mother" and "Kirk" in just this way; but readers see what they are prepared to see. And, it seems, a little, or even a lot, of knowledge is a dangerous thing in these matters. What those early Catholic readers knew, or thought they knew, and what Tolkien knew, or thought he knew, was precisely what led them astray.

These are very different readings of Lewis, but they have in common the belief that he can be placed, even fixed in a field of religious and cultural possibilities.

By contrast, consider a 19-year-old American, from a working-class family in Birmingham, Alabama, walking into a church bookstore in 1978, for the first time in my life, and seeing a paperback copy of Mere Christianity on the shelf. What does it tell me about its author? "C. S. Lewis was a professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge University. His previous bestselling Macmillan books include … ." At that time I suppose I knew that Cambridge was an ancient and famous university; also that it was in England. That may have been the extent of my knowledge, except that I had a vague idea that Lewis was a defender of Christianity and an author of children's books. Other early American editions of Lewis's books offered scarcely more information: most typically they identify him simply as "Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford"—this note persisted in editions printed long after his relocation to Cambridge and even after his death—and then list a few of his books.

So what does he say about himself?

I am a very ordinary layman of the Church of England, not especially "high," nor especially "low," nor especially anything else. But in this book I am not trying to convert anyone to my own position. Ever since I became a Christian I have thought that the best, perhaps the only, service I could do for my unbelieving neighbours was to explain and defend the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times.

This did little for me. I did not know what the Church of England was, and the terms "high" and "low" conveyed nothing to my mind. Elsewhere in the preface I read this:

The danger clearly was that I should put forward as common Christianity anything that was peculiar to the Church of England or (worse still) to myself. I tried to guard against this by sending the original script of what is now Book II to four clergymen (Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic) and asking for their criticism. The Methodist thought I had not said enough about Faith, and the Roman Catholic thought I had gone rather too far about the comparative unimportance of theories in explanation of the Atonement. Otherwise all five of us were agreed.

As I recall—my memory is anything but faultless, but I'm relatively confident about this—the primary conclusion that I drew from this statement was that, as a member of the Church of England, Lewis was neither Methodist, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, nor Anglican. Which even now seems to me a reasonable conclusion, given the information I had and did not have at the time. How was I to know that "Anglican" was somehow related to "Church of England"? And if you had told me that Episcopalians—of whose existence I believe I had some nebulous awareness—were also Anglicans, I would have had no idea what that could possibly mean.

In any case, as a new inquirer into Christianity, I thought that the book seemed worth reading, and bought it, along with another one chosen with even less knowledge: a paperback commentary on Paul's letter to the Romans by one F. F. Bruce. And on the choice of those two books hangs quite a tale, as far as the course of my own life is concerned.

I do not want to be careless in generalizing from my own experience in gauging Lewis's religious position, but if, as I suspect, it is indeed relatively common, I want to suggest that one significant reason for Lewis's widespread positive reception in the U.S. involves simple ignorance on the part of American audiences of what it means to be a layman of the Church of England. That is, Lewis did not fit into the known landscape of American religious life: the ordinary American Christian had to evaluate his work on the basis of what information was available—primarily that he was a scholar at a prestigious university and a bestselling author—and on the ideas themselves. And it may be that such readers were better positioned to hear what Lewis had to say than people, like Hugh Trevor-Roper and the readers of Sheed & Ward advertising and J. R. R. Tolkien, who for very different reasons believed that they had knowledge external to the writings that helped them to place and fix Lewis in a field of possibilities already known to them. This is what I mean by my title: "the uses of ignorance."

To fit Lewis within our pre-existing categories is, I fear, a temptation that we all share. It is therefore good to remember a story told by George Sayer, who in his biography of Lewis recalls his first meeting with the man who would become his undergraduate tutor. Leaving Lewis's office he stopped to speak briefly with another visitor—who happened to be, though Sayer did not then know it, J. R. R. Tolkien, and who asked him what he thought about that initial encounter. Sayer replied that he thought Lewis would be "interesting" to have as a tutor. "Interesting?" Tolkien replied, and then went on to make a point that he himself should later have remembered. "Yes, he's certainly that. You'll never get to the bottom of him."

Alan Jacobs teaches in the Honors College of Baylor University. He is the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography, just published by Princeton University Press.

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